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Zen Master vs. Tibetan Lama

zen_worldzen_world Veteran
edited April 2019 in Arts & Writings
The teachers, seventy-year-old Kalu Rinpoche of Tibet, a veteran of years of solitary retreat, and the Zen master Seung Sahn, the first Korean Zen master to teach in the United States, were to test each other's understanding of the Buddha's teachings for the benefit of the onlooking Western students. This was to be a high form of what was being called _Dharma_ combat (the clashing of great minds sharpened by years of study and meditation), and we were waiting with all the anticipation that such a historic encounter deserved. The two monks entered with swirling robes -- maroon and yellow for the Tibetan, austere grey and black for the Korean -- and were followed by retinues of younger monks and translators with shaven heads. They settled onto cushions in the familiar cross-legged positions, and the host made it clear that the younger Zen master was to begin. The Tibetan lama sat very still, fingering a wooden rosary (_mala_) with one hand while murmuring, _"Om mani padme hum"_ continuously under his breath.
The Zen master, who was already gaining renown for his method of hurling questions at his students until they were forced to admit their ignorance and then bellowing, "Keep that don't know mind!" at them, reached deep inside his robes and drew out an orange. "What is this?" he demanded of the lama. "What is this?" This was a typical opening question, and we could feel him ready to pounce on whatever response he was given.
The Tibetan sat quietly fingering his mala and made no move to respond.
"What is this?" the Zen master insisted, holding the orange up to the Tibetan's nose.
Kalu Rinpoche bent very slowly to the Tibetan monk near to him who was serving as the translator, and they whispered back and forth for several minutes. Finally the translator addressed the room: "Rinpoche says, 'What is the matter with him? Don't they have oranges where he comes from?"
The dialog progressed no further.


  • Lmfao good one...
  • You are what you practice, zen is based on a language of insight. It is like speaking Korean to the Rimpoche. But, testing insight like that is premised on a western idea of Buddhist universalism - which may be flawed from the start. I suspect different maps lead to different places, that's why it pays to spend time with another tradition. Zen tends to cultivate less metta, and awareness of mind states, Tibetan seems to develop more subtle energy, depth of knowledge, Zen is good on checking insight.
  • This reminds me of Stephen Batchelor's stories of sitting for months, wracking his brain over the koan his Korean teacher gave him: "What is this" He didn't even have an orange to go by, just the question.
  • lol...I didnt post this thread to show that one is better than the other one...
    Instead of a Lama, if there was another zen master facing this zen master, he could have given the same response.

    if you put two masters together, the one who opens his mouth first will loose:)
  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the liminal space Veteran
    edited January 2012
    I took it the way @DharmaField did. Its a different language and approach to the dharma. TB uses intellect and philosophical inquiry, my understanding of zen is that it seeks to disrupt the conceptual mind in order to get beyond it.
  • If I recall from another forum the Tibetan teacher had been told that the discussion would be over a certain content from texts or something of that nature. Thus he was not expecting to discuss things outside of the agreement.
  • ZeroZero Veteran
    if you put two masters together, the one who opens his mouth first will loose:)
    Inevitable conclusion of a zero sum game...
  • Sorry I thought it was funny...was I suppose to laugh?
  • Newbie, says i
  • I took it the way @DharmaField did. Its a different language and approach to the dharma. TB uses intellect and philosophical inquiry, my understanding of zen is that it seeks to disrupt the conceptual mind in order to get beyond it.
    Zen is not really about disrupting the conceptual mind.

    What is THIS! from a Zen perspective is a direct presentation of the dharma view. It assumes that there is no-self seeing an orange - just the orange and nothing else! Zen people might assume the Lama didn't get it, just as one of my Zen teachers could not understand what the fuss was about when a leading Vipassana teacher gave a talk at our Zendo - as clearly he had little insight! Having practiced long enough in both, I can see how the two traditions are different and the same, and insight is not limited to answering koans.

  • This Rinpoche master is awesome ;)
  • Oh, I suspect this famous exchange was a shining example of Master Seung Sahn's sense of humor at work. In our tradition, a dharma duel sometimes begins with a ritual handing over of a common object like a piece of fruit, or a fan, or even a stick, along with the question, "What is this?"

    The Zen Master is asking you to do something with the object, to demonstrate its function, not assign a label to it. If an orange, you might peel it and take a bite. If a fan is handed over, you might fan yourself. Thus you have agreed to an exchange of understanding beyond words and the duel begins. From "What is this?" we then go to "What are you?"

    Master Seung Sahn was well educated in the various schools of Buddhism. He could have sat there reciting sutras, I suppose, if that would have taught anyone anything. I suspect this was his way of pointing out the uselessness of trying to compare the two practices. For him, it was only important you practice whatever it is you do, completely and totally.
  • I bet it was a Tangelo.
  • seeker242seeker242 Zen Florida, USA Veteran
    What a noob lama, couldn't even answer such a simple question! :lol:

    Seriously though, this zen master had a pretty unique teaching style. He would say things like "What is this"? Then he held up an orange. Then he would usually say something like "If you say it's an orange, wrong answer, I hit you 30 times. If you say it's not an orange, wrong again and I hit you 30 times! So what is it?! He was always asking questions like that. :)
  • sour sweet.
  • DaltheJigsawDaltheJigsaw Mountain View Veteran
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